Saturday 16 December 2017

Original working women: The Generations of Irish women who toiled on the land and kept families fed

Author Alice Taylor: tribute to our female ancestors. Photo: Daragh McSweeney.
Author Alice Taylor: tribute to our female ancestors. Photo: Daragh McSweeney.

Alice Taylor

Generations of Irish women toiled on the land and kept families fed and clothed before the term working women had been invented. In her new book, writer Alice Taylor pays tribute to her female ancestors

As you grow more mature, your sense of perception and appreciation of those gone before you begins to blossom. It is only in recent years that I really began to appreciate the wonderful women of my childhood.

I grew up on a farm in North Cork overlooking the Kerry Mountains. At the time, rural houses had neither electricity nor piped water so life for women was not easy. Out of necessity, they bonded together to sustain their families and mastered the art of making do and developing their creativity.

I witnessed the amazing coping ability and resourcefulness of these women. They coped with the frugality of the time and, maybe because of it, sustained a lifestyle that was kind to the environment and the landscape.

Their souls could have been crippled by the drudgery of their life but they soldiered on in tough circumstances, and through their connectedness to each other, to the land and animals, nurtured the soul of Ireland. Their hard work was constant but they succeeded in introducing into the daily grind some of the accomplishments and refinements of life.

We walk in the footprints of these great women. Extraordinary women who, because they were and are perceived to be ordinary, never had their story told. Most of these women are long gone.

They were the biblical stone rejected by the builder that became the cornerstone. They were the silent cornerstones of our world.

We Irish walk in the footprints of these great women. Women who lived through hard times on farms, in villages, towns and cities. Their coping skills were amazing and, despite challenging circumstances, they kept the show on the road and bread on the table.Farm women who wrestled a living from the land and raised large families on very limited resources. The term working wives had yet to be coined and yet these were the original working wives.

Their workplace was the farmyard and because it was adjacent to their homes, they were perceived as stay-at-home wives. But proximity to their jobs did not lighten their workload, which could be hard and demanding. They were the multitaskers of their time and added substantially to family incomes.

It is a sobering thought that the grandmothers of today's grandmothers were the first generation after the famine. Those grandmothers were born into an Ireland still reeling from the hunger pangs of the famine. Immigration for them, and the generations to come, was a necessary evil that wrenched children from families whom they might never again see.

The last farewell gathering earned the term 'The American Wake'. It was, to all intents and purposes, a wake because, even though there was no death, there still was an invisible parting. It was often a final parting because some immigrants never came back. Some felt that the fare would cost too much, so sent the money back instead to help out. Others got immersed in the new way of life and severed all connections with home; some fell through the cracks of a new challenging world and never again made contact.

The voyage to America took months, but with time that journey gradually dwindled to six weeks. The first letter from America, known as the 'landing letter' telling of their arrival, often took months to come back home. But how could any letter describe the tough challenges that these young people faced in a strange country and the hard lump of homesickness they endured? The mothers they left behind dried their tears and turned their faces to the job of survival.

Most of the lonely immigrants, very aware of the home situation, painted happy pictures to avoid worrying already burdened parents. Brian Friel depicted it on stage in The Loves of Cass McGuire.

Slowly, American and English money leaked back and eased the burden of poverty at home, and also often paved the way for another American wake when siblings joined the early departures in their new country. But over the years, foreign money did work wonders.

It kept food on the table, bought extra fields to make farms viable, reroofed houses, put cattle on the land and clothed younger siblings. American dollars and English pounds kept the home fires burning.

Young idealistic girls went into the many convents dotted around the country. Coming out of homes burning with the religious fervour of the time, they dreamt of bringing some of this zeal to foreign lands, and in pursuit of this ideal, brought education all over the world.

Other nuns stayed at home and set up schools to educate our young girls, and others efficiently ran our hospitals. They ran these hospital with amazing skill, maintaining a high standard of hygiene and efficiency.

Other young girls joined contemplative orders and dedicated themselves to lives of prayer and silence. In those orders, contemplative nuns are still providing pools of tranquillity and peace in today's frazzled world.

Out in the fields, the stay-at-home women saved the hay, cut the corn and drew turf from the bog.

Their town and city sisters reared large families on meagre wages, often supplemented by cleaning other people's homes and offices. The tenements where they lived are now replaced by high-rise apartments.

The harshness and challenges of the time sometimes drove their menfolk to drink, but despite that additional burden, these women battled on.

They reared the children and kept the bread on the table. They were great women.

This book is a salutation to all those women, those who stayed at home and those who immigrated.

They kept a light glowing in the windows, and the doors open in the homes of Ireland. Some of these doors and windows are long gone, and the ruins of old thatched cottages and stone farmhouses are buried in remote corners of our landscape.

But great women who drew water from the well and lived close to the earth once inhabited those houses.

Every spring, on Rogation Days, they went out with holy water to bless the crops, as their Celtic ancestors had done before them.

Their city sisters drew buckets of water up steep, narrow staircases of the tenements that are now the subject of searching documentaries.

Despite swimming against the tide of poverty and the lack of inheritance rights, our female ancestors left us a rich heritage, so let us salute and celebrate them with appreciation and respect.

'The Women' is out now, published by O'Brien Press, priced at €16.99

'Full many a gem of purest ray serene

The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bare;

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen

And waste it's sweetness in the desert air.'

From 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' by Thomas Gray

Irish Independent

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